I groaned a decade ago when Twentieth Century Fox acquired the rights to adapt Life of Pi. Though I quite liked Yann Martel’s 2001 best-seller, a part of me believed Hollywood terribly arrogant for thinking it could do justice to every story ever told. My heart sank further at the news that M. Night Shyamalan would helm the movie, not because I found the director lacking but because the project would’ve played to his worst instincts. To my relief, Ang Lee eventually replaced him, and what I once perceived as hubris turned into creative ambition.
Like the source novel, Life of Pi opens with an Indian immigrant (Irfan Khan) offering a French Canadian writer (Rafe Spall), and therefore the audience, “a tale that will make you believe in God”. I usually don’t like fiction that aims to vindicate religious doctrine because characters, by definition, inhabit a reality with a proven God, the writer, who can perform incontrovertible miracles with just a stroke of a key. There is, after all, a reason deus ex machina is recognised as a literary device and not a spiritual one. Fortunately, the film forgoes the usual plot contrivances in favour of a complex philosophical argument.
Pi, the aforementioned immigrant, really gives us three yarns, the first of which turned out my favourite in the book and remains so in Lee’s adaptation. It recounts our storyteller’s youth as he’s introduced to the Vedas, the Bible, and the Quran, embracing them all simultaneously. Suspiciously, screenwriter David Magee skips over most of the Muslim stuff, no doubt for fear of alienating Fox News’ depressingly substantial demographic, but he includes important advice from the boy’s atheist father (Adil Hussain): “Don’t go through life accepting blindly. To find your path, you must begin with thinking rationally.” This too our hero (Ayush Tandon) takes to heart, consolidating four spiritualities without conflict, protest, bloodshed, or investigative reports about the war on Christmas.
The second tale makes up most of Martel’s novel but mercifully just over a third of the movie. On his way to Canada, Pi, now played by Suraj Sharma, finds himself shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific, forced to share a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and that Bengal tiger you see on every poster. The digital effects that bring these unlikely castaways together prove nothing short of spectacular, and I couldn’t tell you, for the life of me, when CGI was used and when the filmmakers shot real animals. I’m also impressed with the seaweed island our hero eventually comes across. It looks exactly as I imagined it when I plowed impatiently through that chapter.
Fully integrating the third dimension into his narrative so that, at one point, the sea and the night sky become indistinguishable but for the illusion of perspective, Lee makes our hero’s journey across the ocean decidedly more entertaining than I’d remembered. Whereas most 3D blockbusters detract from their own stories by throwing random objects toward the audience, Life of Pi uses the technology to convey an infinite sense of depth, even changing aspect ratios at times to accentuate the notion that the sea extends far beyond the screen. I wonder, though, if the director might have gone a bit overboard (forgive the pun) with the spectacle. The point, after all, ought to be to challenge Pi’s belief in the divine, not confirm it with breathtaking sights.
I dare not spoil the third, horrifying tale, except to point out that Life of Pi stacks the deck by conveying our hero’s final account through dialogue instead of depicting the events on screen as it did with the other two stories. Given the choice we as viewers (emphasis on the first syllable) are ultimately given, I feel Lee betrays Martel’s discourse ever so slightly by robbing the audience of the opportunity to make a fair decision. As a result, I fear the film’s layered message about truth and spirituality might get lost in all the artifice or, worse, reduced to a self-serving straw-man platitude, the sort one hears in almost every stupid, vitriolic debate about religion.
Then again, perhaps the problem lies in the very act of adapting such a rich, yet deceptively simple story. I mentioned my initial apprehension upon hearing that Hollywood had optioned Life of Pi. It had little to do with special effects, pacing, or loyalty to the source material. Far from perfect, Martel’s novel banked on literary limitations long defined by modernist authors like Joseph Conrad and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whereas Lee’s movie stems from an industry still convinced that it can and will represent anything, given a high enough budget. Maybe the director didn’t mean to belittle moviegoers in that climactic moment so much as express humility in regard to his chosen medium.